As a rule, sticky substances and photography don’t mix. For a beloved camera, any liquid substance is a cause for concern. So naturally, I was surprised when I stumbled upon a neat trick used by glamor photographers back in the day. Actresses of the 1920s and 30s were photographed in the soft-focus style that photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen developed.
Arnold Grethe and Victor Georg, photographers of Vanity Fair used hazy focus, diffusion filters, and other techniques to soften the portraits of actors, particularly women. This stylized softness was adopted by American filmmakers who before then had stuck to the sharpest focus possible. Doris Day, queen of romantic glamor portraiture was rumored to have insisted that photographers use diffusion filters to soften the focus of her photographs. And sometimes, in a pinch, photographers applied Vaseline or petroleum jelly to the lenses.
How to make a soft-focus look with petroleum jelly
Creating a diffusion filter with petroleum jelly is actually quite simple, and a lot less messy than it sounds. First, raid your bathroom cupboard for some Vaseline. If you don’t already have a supply, you can purchase a tub from your local pharmacy.
Next, you’ll need to apply the jelly to your lens. There are two ways to go about this. One method is to first stretch a layer or two of cling wrap over the front of your lens, forming a barrier between the jelly and the lens. Fix the cling wrap with a rubber band and double check for holes in the plastic before you start applying the jelly. The potential risk of this method is that the plastic might rupture, causing the jelly to ooze all over your lens instead.
Alternatively, if you have a spare clear filter handy, you could smear petroleum jelly all over that instead. This is a little simpler and you can remove the jelly with alcohol wipes later. Either way, DO NOT apply the petroleum jelly directly to your camera lens – it won’t end well.
Method of application
Start off by adding very small amounts of petroleum jelly to your lens or cling-wrap rig. You can apply the petroleum jelly with your finger, a brush, or some additional plastic for varying results. I’ve found that if you use your finger to apply the jelly, it can leave abrupt areas that affect the softness of the resulting image. Even in very small amounts, the softening effect of the petroleum jelly is quite pronounced. The more you add, the more abstracted the resulting photograph will be.
The direction in which you apply the petroleum jelly also has a significant impact on the outcome of your photograph. Swiping the petroleum jelly in one direction could result in a completely different effect to that of jelly applied in the opposite direction. Experiment with different application methods by tracing different shapes into the lens with your finger.
I also pack some alcohol or glass wipes in case I want to remove a portion of the Vaseline for artistic purposes.
When finished, carefully remove the cling wrap or filter. You can wipe the filter down with some alcohol wipes before stowing it away for later use.
Give this fun abstract soft-focus technique a try and share your results in the comments section below.